We Still Need More Books

I recently spoke to the M.A.T. students at UMass Amherst about writing novellas. My thanks goes out to Professor Closs for the invite. As we discussed my writing process and teachers and professors have been using novellas, I was reminded of a simple truth…

We need more.

I wrote about this three months ago. Since then, there have been four new novellas published, which is pretty good, but we still need more. Specifically, we need more books at lower levels. Why lower levels? The latest novellas range from 158 unique words to 750! That lower number represents a reasonable estimate of how many words a student acquires by the end of their first year, and the higher number how many words a student acquires by the end of their fourth year. What about during the first and second years when most students study Latin? Besides, students at a higher reading level benefit from reading below-level texts, even teachers!

In the Latin Best Practices Facebook group, I shared how I read Emma Vanderpool’s new novella of 158 unique words in about 40 minutes. The total amount of input I was exposed to was about 3,000 words. Compare that to the 2300 words of Fabulae Syrae (1000+ unique words?) that took me about 7 hours to read, and you see how much more input is possible with below-level texts. Remember that “books are easy” is one of five principles Jeon & Day (2016) identified for extensive reading! If students are reading independently, and extensively, that means books of not many words at all. Of course, when a teacher guides students through a text, that text can be at a higher level. Granted, that kind of close reading has been the status quo for Latin programs. The practice has been used to justify texts of ridiculously unrealistic expectations, and is just one source of Latin’s exclusivity. Disrupting that status requires changes to practices and expectations. Extensive reading is one of them, and only recently have there been Latin texts that lend themselves to independent reading. Nonetheless, when a learner is reading on their own and can control the pace of input, the text level must be much, much, much lower.

As a Latin teacher of first year language students, I’ve observed how more books written with fewer than 100 unique words would better serve everyone. Some learners really enjoy reading, yet their proficiency hasn’t increased to a vocabulary doubling in number—which is needed to reach 98% vocabulary coverage for the next books beyond the lowest—and this makes sense. Acquisition isn’t linear, nor should we expect it to be. Some learners are still at a 30-40 word reading level, which means they have like 5 books to choose from. This is also the third year I’ve had students new to the city appear mid-way through the year! Those learners don’t have much of a selection now that we’re reading at least 20 minutes on our own each week. We need more books.

Bottom line, though, we need books that all learners can read, whether it’s a first year student spending several classes doing so, or a third year student reading a whole story within 10 minutes! There really is no limit to how many of these we need, from a variety of voices, on a variety of topics, using a variety of writing styles.

Forced Input

There’s plenty of talk about forced output (i.e. when students are told to produce language beyond their proficiency level), yet not much has been said regarding forced input. Forced input occurs when students are given a text above their reading level, or told to listen to something beyond their comprehension. Perhaps this is even assigned, and affects the course grade. Forced input also occurs when students are given or assigned anything that lacks a communicative purpose. Forced input is not very meaningful at best, and incomprehensible at worst, which means the target language is less likely to be processed and acquired. Are you forcing input? Let’s see…

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Doing Something Might Not Be Doing Anything

I’ve been thinking more about the topic of “doing work.” For example, students who don’t “do the work” could face profound consequences if that work accounts for the course grade, which it usually does. But what really *is* the work? Should students even be doing it? These are the kinds of questions seldom asked given daily demands, yet at the same time significantly affect what goes on during the day itself! Let’s investigate…

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Using Videos: The Easiest MovieTalk, Clip Chat, wtv.

Don’t even pause the video.

Just use it to set up prior knowledge—what some might consider “pre-teaching”—before reading a text. Afterwards, students will have a bit of context from a 3-5min video clip so you can get to reading the story.

Of course, this changes the experience, but if you’re at all hesitant to provide input during a video, are running out of time, and/or want to focus on providing CI by reading, this is one way to do it.

All you need is a video, and a transcript or story based on it. There’s this database floating around for videos with universal content, but keep an eye out for language-specific videos and animations you could use while exploring the target culture. Some people have already created accompanying texts, but you could always watch, then co-create with students, or spend a planning period writing something on your own. If you find/have something existing, you could always create an additional tier, or embedded reading. N.B. Remember, you only have to create it once! I’ve been writing a new text every year or so to go along with videos collected over time. Here are many texts ready-to-go for Latin.

Discipulī et Magistrī Illustrēs: A Guessing Game

On Facebook, I shared my variation on the student interview program Discipulus Illustris (i.e. Special Person) of getting teacher colleagues to choose and answer questions that I put into Google Slides to play “guess the teacher” with classes. Given the size of our staff, I have every Tuesday covered for the rest of the year. Students have enjoyed the process, but they wanted more. Therefore, instead of conducting the typical student interviews on Thursdays, from this point onward, we’ll play “guess the student.”

Setting it up was easy. Last week, all students chose 5-10 questions to answer (from the list they, themselves, generated earlier in the year), and turned them in. I selected a few at random, and put them into Google Slides. I also assigned point values decreasing with each question, a bit like a Kahoot alternative, as well as 15 seconds between each slide. This game runs itself aside from teams guessing a student on the paper, writing the number (of points) shown on the slide at the time, and dropping it into a hat. This awards teams points that correctly guess the student the fastest, or who take the risk if unsure. I can do three each class, so three rounds of this game will be played each Thursday (until the end of school). Most points out of all three rounds wins.

Not Just A Team Building Game
This isn’t just a game. There’s input. I found it easy to type up student responses in Latin without vocab getting out of bounds. Where it would have, though, I just quoted the student’s response in English. I also removed the English support from the questions that appear on each slide, so students have 15 seconds in their group to process the input. Then, the response appears as they have 15 seconds to confer. In some cases, I took the class through a choral translation of the question, and/ore response. Everything is timed, so there’s a sense of urgency to earn the most points and win the game (i.e. communicative purpose is entertainment).

Adapting Latin: No Excuses & Every-Text Tier Challenge

I’ve been writing my next book on the zodiac signs and their associated myths for months now. Despite being intended for the beginning Latin learner, I thought each myth could use an additional, even simpler, version in the final book. Today, it took me only 7 minutes to adapt one of the myths—that I’ve been writing for months—to about 1/4 the length using fewer words. Every teacher can do this kind of thing. Every.

No excuses.

My Every-Text Tier Challenge goes out to all language teachers. To accept and claim honor after observing greater comprehension from students, just take tomorrow’s text—because there’s no good reason your students aren’t reading every day—and write a simplified version of it…right now. Don’t worry about changing formatting if it’s perfect for printing or something. You can project the simplified version tomorrow and read with students just before they read the original (as part of the simple Talk & Read daily lesson plan format). Oh, and does the text have some twists, or juicy details? Leave them out in the simplified version, and you’re on your way to creating an embedded reading.

Keep doing this for every text until you can adapt Latin (or whatever) so fast you don’t have to think about it. No excuses. “No time” is the usual excuse I hear for not doing this kind of thing, but that tends to come from teachers doing too much planning, quiz creating, and/or too much grading. Just do less of all that, and do more simplifying of texts.

Why Bother?
Bottom line, all students will benefit from reading a simple- to super-simple version of a text. There’s also a very good chance that particular students even need a text at a much lower level to truly receive CI (i.e. input that’s *actually* comprehensible, and not just partly- to incomprehensible input).

Oh, and if it takes you too long to adapt your Latin (or whatever), that’s a really good sign that the original text is too high level for students to read, anyway (i.e. also a sign that you need to be giving more comprehensible texts that provide more comprehensible input). So, I challenge you to the Every-Text Tier Challenge. Of course, there’s no need to share this work, especially with Latin shaming still lingering about, so it’s truly the honor system, here. However, I encourage you to discuss the process of simplifying texts in fōra varia, especially if you’re unsure where to begin, or have questions about this important strategy to make language more comprehensible.

Dante’s Circles Of Latin Shaming Hell

Instances of Latin shaming (i.e. causing one to feel ashamed or inadequate regarding their use of Latin) come up every now and then. I last pondered the issue back in August of 2019 in a draft of this post, first started in 2018 after observing some kind of online scuffle. Like clockwork, there have been public discussions once again regarding Latinity (i.e. quality of Latin), whether spoken in the classroom, or appearing in published works. To be clear, I have no interest in participating in those discussions. None. However, I’d like to share a bit about what’s been going on, and give some examples of Latin shaming…

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